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Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait

The rays of the evening sun glisten on the waters of the Zwin, which flow with a steady calm.  Couples stroll leisurely on the banks of the canal and the cool evening breeze adds a crispness to the air. Fifteenth century Bruges (Belgium) is extremely rich and prosperous. The Dukes of Burgundy, the aristocrats and wealthy merchants are patrons of the arts and artists enjoy a very privileged place in society, and are commissioned for their work by the rich and famous.

 Jan Van Eyck is the toast of this charmed circle. He is the painter to the Duke of Burgundy and one of the first artists to master the use of oil based paint as a medium for his artwork. When linseed or walnut oil is added to coloured pigments it dries slowly and allows the artist to make revisions, add details and has a luminous quality that makes the colours look like jewels. It also helps in achieving subtle variations in light and shade to heighten the illusion of three dimensional forms.

Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, is a very wealthy and well-connected merchant in Bruges, he trades in silk, tapestries and other precious objects. So it is only fitting that a man of his stature should commission Jan Van Eyck to paint a portrait of his wife and him. The painting Van Eyck produces is perhaps one of his greatest masterpieces.’ The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait’ as it is called is not intended to be a wedding portrait at all. In fact it is now believed that the couple may have already been married at that time and this may have meant to be a legal document of that marriage, like a marriage certificate in the form of a painting. What we do know however, is that there is an important event taking place. The painting is full of symbolism and art historians debate and try to decode it even today, and that is what makes it so intriguing and fascinating.

Painted with oil on three oak panels this 32.4” X 23.6” painting shows the couple in an upstairs room with a chest and bed in it, it is early summer as indicated by the fruit on the cherry tree outside the window. The room is probably a reception room; it was the fashion in those days to have beds in reception rooms which were used for seating. The Arnolfinis are very richly dressed; despite the season their outer garments, his tabard and her dress are trimmed and fully lined with fur. The furs are very expensive, and his tabard may have been made of silk velvet. Her dress is equally expensive and we can see a lot of material has been folded and sewn together, then cut and frayed decoratively( dagging) on the sleeves and train. Her blue underdress is also trimmed with fur. The pleating of the dress around the stomach and waist makes the wife look pregnant, but she is not believed to be so. It was the fashion at that time and a rounded belly was a sign of fertility in young women. Fashion was important to Arnolfini since he was a wealthy cloth merchant.

The placement of the two figures suggests conventional fifteenth century gender roles. The woman stands near the bed and the room, symbolic of her role as the caretaker of the house. Giovanni, on the other hand stands near the window, symbolic of his role in the outside world. He looks directly at the viewer where as his wife gazes obediently at him. His hand is vertically raised, representative of his position of authority, while her hand is in a lower more submissive pose.

One of the most interesting objects in this painting for me personally is the circular, slightly convex mirror on the wall. The reflection in the mirror shows two more people in the room, positioned where we, the viewers would be. So we know that the Arnolfinis are not alone in the room. One of them is believed to be the artist himself.
He has signed his name in Latin over the mirror-‘Johannes Van Eyck fuit hic’ (Jan Van Eyck was here) as testimony to his presence in the room, and the other person may be a priest or a second witness. The mirror is framed in wood with tiny scenes from the Passion of Christ. Each scene is painted to look like it’s behind glass and is no bigger than half the size of a fingernail, and yet they are all well-defined.

There is a carved figure of Saint Margaret on the bedpost. She is the patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth. The brush which hangs from the bedpost is symbolic of domestic duties, and on the left side of the mirror we can see rock crystal prayer beads.

The ornate six branched chandelier, with just a single lit candle in the left front holder lit in full daylight is believed to be symbolic of the presence of God.

 The slippers are lying on the side and the couple is barefoot which makes us believe that this is indeed an important moment.

The dog, in the forefront symbolizes loyalty. It is a rare and expensive breed which reinforces their wealth.

Another interesting element in the painting are the oranges on the windowsill. Oranges were a rare delicacy in Bruges and only the very rich could afford to eat them.

There are many ways to read a painting, and that is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of art. There is another theory about this painting, as is the case with most masterpieces. It is believed by some to be a memorial painting, commissioned by Giovanni Arnolfini in memory of his wife who had died in childbirth the year before the painting was made. The single candle in the chandelier is burning on the side of Giovanni, symbolising life whereas his wife’s side is in darkness.

No matter how you choose to interpret this painting, there is one thing no one can deny; that it is a masterpiece and shall continue to intrigue and enthral everyone who sees it. Jan Van Eyck died in 1441 but the legacy he left behind continues to live on. The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait is on display at the National Gallery in London.

References: National Gallery, Smart History, Wikipedia 


Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Where the Wild Things Are

Adam names the animals
The sky is overcast with dark grey clouds and the persistent drizzle is quickly turning into a downpour. It is the twelfth century in England and Emily is sitting next to her father, watching him work. At sixteen, she is already quite an accomplished artist and considers herself very fortunate to be the daughter of one of the most talented and respected illuminators in England. Her father is creating an ‘Illuminated Manuscript’. Emily knows the patron is extremely wealthy and suspects he may be from the royal family.

Illuminated manuscripts were manuscripts decorated in real gold or silver and were fairly common in the medieval ages. They were painted on the best quality parchment called 'Vellum' and were written in Latin. The text was usually written first by a scribe and then given to the illuminator. Emily watches her father as he applies the gold to the painting. She knows the complex process well by now, the gold leaf pieces are hammered until they are, ‘thinner than the thinnest paper’ then they are mixed with stag’s glue and put into water and mixed with your finger. Once the gold is soft and malleable in the water it is ready to be applied on the page. Sometimes gold powder was also used. Apart from gold and silver the artists also used insect based colours, chemical and mineral based colours and plant based colours.

The illuminated manuscript that Emily’s father is creating a Bestiary. A bestiary is quite simply a book of beasts; it is a collection of short descriptions about all sorts of animals real and imaginary, accompanied by a moralising explanation. Although it deals with the natural world it was never meant to be a scientific text. This particular book came to be known as the ‘Aberdeen Bestiary’ and is considered one of the best examples of its type.

As the rain lashes on the window, Emily gathers the completed pages of the manuscript and stacks them together, she marvels at their beauty. Each picture is set in a frame with a background of burnished gold. The colours are rich and bold, with blues and reds dominating each composition. The rhythmically graceful black outline brings each figure to life.

Apes: The female ape gives birth to twins. She loves one but hates the other. When hunted she carries the loved one in her arms, while the other clings to her back. Eventually she gets tired and drops the favoured baby and the other one is saved.

The Panther: A many coloured animal the panther is handsome and gentle, his only enemy is the dragon. When the panther roars, he exhales a sweet odour which draws all the other animals to him except the dragon, who retreats into his hole, stiffens with fear, and pretends to be dead.

The Fox: The fox is crafty and deceitful. When he is hungry he rolls in red earth to look like he’s covered in blood. He feigns death by holding his breath, and when birds come to sit on his body he jumps up and eats them.

Dogs: Dogs are the most generously illustrated, with three sets of illuminations. Here three attentive dogs are shown with collars and leads. They are the most intelligent of all animals and are devoted to humans. They track down wild beasts, guard sheep and protect property.

Emily apprenticed under her father and became an accomplished illuminator; as did a lot of women in this period especially in Paris. The Aberdeen Bestiary became a part of Henry VIII’s private collection. It was never fully completed and has notes on the process of its execution in the margins. It would be approximately nine hundred years later, that the magical beasts from the famous Harry Potter series which have fascinated us all, would be inspired from these very medieval bestiaries.
In case you feel like viewing the entire bestiary:

References: Aberdeen Bestiary, Wikipedia 

Monday, 2 June 2014

The Dual Nature of Christ

As the group of pilgrims move slowly along the endless desert on their mules, Egeria is struck by the sheer inhospitality of the terrain. She feels humbled when she thinks of Moses, and how he had led his people through this very desert for forty years. It is the sixth century AD, and the pilgrims have travelled for many weeks to reach St. Catherine’s Monastery at the base of Mt.Sinai in Egypt.

An old monk leads the tired pilgrims through the monastery. As Egeria follows her people, her eyes suddenly fall on an icon of Christ, she is instantly drawn towards it. This painting of Christ as the Pantocrator, which in Greek means ‘Ruler of All’ is regarded as one of the earliest examples of Byzantine Iconography (painting). Believed to have been painted by a highly accomplished artist from Constantinople (Turkey) during Emperor Justinian’s reign, this is a 33X18cm Encaustic painting on wood. Encaustic painting also known as hot wax painting, involves the use of heated beeswax to which coloured pigments are added. The liquid is then applied to a surface-usually wood. Then metal tools and special brushes are used to shape the paint before it cools.

The painting of Christ Pantocrator, shows the frontal portrait of Jesus holding gospel book in one hand and blessing the viewer with the other hand. The portrait is a coming together of Roman and Egyptian portraiture traditions. The portrait captures the moment of tension where Jesus Christ is both divine and human; he is simultaneously both mercy and judge. There is a distinct split down the centre of his face, one side is an ethereal, stoic Jesus and the other is a darker almost angry Jesus showing human emotion. This split between the human and the divine natures of Christ extends down to his hands as well.

The divine hand blesses the faithful but is also a sign of teaching and authority, his fingers are raised in groups of two and three which is usually interpreted as the dual natures of Christ and the holy trinity. The human hand carries a gospel, the story of the physical events of Christ’s life; it symbolizes his authority over the cosmos and his ministery here on earth. Symbolism also emerges in the use of light. The light moves from the left to the right, creating a sense of mystery on the right side. If you look carefully, you will notice that Jesus’s eyes have no reflection. This is because of the belief that he himself is the source of light and since the light comes from him, his eyes are clear of reflections.

 Colour is also used to reinforce the idea of unearthly lights and heavenly environments. Warm tones, ranging from ochre to brown are centred in golden tones. The circular halo around his head, done in gold leaf indicates the divinity of the figure and probably had some incrustations on it. Some graphic elements have been added to the painting, we can see three axes of what could be a cross painted on the halo with star - like designs on them. These designs also appear in ochre on the top left and right corners of the painting. They would later symbolise purity and would be a key element in the depiction of Virgin Mary. Behind the figure of Jesus we can see a landscape of what seems to be a city, painted in the style of Roman decorative painting.

Egeria, and her fellow pilgrims stayed at the monastery for some time.  She wrote about her journey to the monastery and the painting that enthralled her. Her writings were later translated into English and compiled into a book called, 'The Pilgrimage of Etheria’( she was also known by that name). St Catherine’s monastery is the oldest working monastery in the world. The image of Christ Pantocrator, is the single most important image still existing from the early Christian Empire. It's believed to have survived the period of iconoclasm in the ninth and tenth century (when all religious Christian icons were deliberately destroyed) because of the remote location of the monastery, where thousands of years ago Moses had come down the great mountain after God delivered the Ten Commandments to him.

References: Wikipedia,,OrthoWiki